Clemson’s rebuilt defense finishes in the secondary where we find two new starters in the experienced Jadar Johnson and sophomore Van Smith. While many Clemson faithful believe safety play will improve by addition through subtraction, I spent all off-season trying to dispel such a notion before finally coming around to the optimism during fall camp.
Plain and simple: safety play cost Clemson the 2015 national championship. Alabama’s onside kick was a brilliant call and executed perfectly, so I don’t look at that play when I think “what if.” The kickoff return touchdown was a back-breaker, but we knew it was a depth-related issue all year and isn’t all too surprising. The safety busts, however, grew worse as the season progressed — a counterintuitive development — before finally completely unraveling in the title game. It is here I lament the “what if” because if you take away even one busted coverage against OJ Howard, it’s a different game and maybe a different outcome.
Safety is the lone unit on defense where new blood provides a bit of optimism. Jayron Kearse and TJ Green had the intimidation factor and were phenomenal in run support; physical specimens and Brent Venables’ prototypical safety prospects. Yet, for all their attributes, the busts/whiffs added up at an alarming rate. All spring I found it unrealistic to expect the busts to decrease with two new starters, and when combined with a drop in athleticism at the position I saw an obvious downgrade in Johnson and Smith. However, with Johnson’s experience and Smith’s added bulk, I have come around and feel surprisingly good about the safety position this fall.
Jadar Johnson: RS Senior, #18 6’1” 217 lbs
Johnson is the rock at safety who played frequently on third downs in Venables’ dime formation. With off-season workouts which put him up to 217 pounds, my concern for a drop-off in run support, well, dropped. Sneaky athletic and an excellent ballhawk, look for Johnson to follow a recent trend in Clemson defenders who made a serious impact in their final year of eligibility.
Korrin Wiggins: RS Junior, #15 6’1” 200 lbs
Yes, we included Wiggins in the linebacker preview but I list him with the safeties since it is where I saw him play in one of fall camp’s final scrimmages. A 2-year starter at nickel before a preseason ACL injury a year ago, Wiggins’ recovery hasn’t progressed quickly enough to run with the starters, but he provides excellent depth at each of the safety positions and nickel. A healthy Wiggins is an outrageously fortunate boon for the secondary as a whole; he has the versatility and experience this unit sorely lacks.
Denzel Johnson: RS Freshman, #14, 6’0” 199 lbs
After a redshirt year, Johnson exited spring ball second on the depth chart at strong safety. With Wiggins filling a variety of roles, he will likely see a 2nd string workload instead of 3rd as he is listed here.
Van Smith: Sophomore, # 23, 6’0” 202 lbs
Smith made his debut in the Miami game and earned solid snaps throughout the final half of the season and postseason. I said in the spring I wasn’t comfortable with Smith as a starting free safety unless he bulked up to 200 pounds or so, and it’s exactly what he did. Again, he pales in comparison to the run support and athleticism of a TJ Green (the fastest safety in NFL Combine history, btw) but if he stays home in pass coverage, it’s a great trade-off when you consider the supposed strength of the front 7 against the run.
Tanner Muse: RS Freshman, #19, 6’2” 216 lbs
Muse is first off the bench at free safety almost by default, but he looked improved in fall camp after a shaky spring game performance. Ideal size and speed make him a salivating prospect at the position, but could also earn him some snaps as a box safety in the dime.
Isaiah Simmons: Freshman, #12, 6’4” 221 lbs
Simmons is a big, athletic prospect who I believe will could earn snaps as a box safety, but finds himself on the redshirt bubble while he transitions from Kansas high school football to the college game. I think he can excel as a box safety sooner rather than later — since he would likely be called upon to simply blitz or spy — but a redshirt would be a welcome luxury.
On the surface it seems Clemson will take a clear step back in pass defense, but when one considers how the safeties were grossly overrated a year ago and the potential depth of this year’s squad, it likely won’t be the step back many think. Kearse’s production nosedived along with his draft stock in the second half of the season, and while Green was a heat-seeking missile, the majority of the crippling busts were on him. It’s more likely we see a trade-off in run support for better coverage in the back — a welcome development considering an opponent’s only hope to defeat Clemson is to try and outscore them through the air.